Melville’s Model of Madness

BEFORE SHIPPING ON the fictional Pequod, the narrator, Ishmael, was warned that Ahab “was a little out of his mind for a spell” on the passage home from his last voyage. “He’s sick, they say,” Ishmael admitted in reply, “but is getting better, and will be all right again before long”–at which the prophet who had delivered the advice snorted derisively, “All right again before long!”

Captain Ahab had a brilliant mind and was extremely brave, but was also clearly crazy. Captain Norris of the Sharon was all of these, too–he was sharp-witted, courageous in the boats, and patently deranged. On a whaleship, just as on a southern plantation, a brutal master might whip those under him, but only an insane master would whip any of his hands to death, because he was depriving himself of labor.

The character of Captain Ahab is popularly assumed to be based at least in part on the real-life commander of the Acushnet, Captain Valentine Pease. The novelist noted later that Pease ended up “in asylum at the Vineyard”–and this, it seems, was not all that uncommon. The Rev. Joseph Thaxter, minister of the Edgartown Congregational Church from 1780 to 1827, flatly declared, “Insanity prevails much.” Strangely, he attributed it to “the Purity of the air and Water.” Whatever the cause, it does indicate that mental instability was not at all unknown in the clannish communities of New England–which also infers that the shipowners might have had an inkling that some of the men they entrusted with their ships were a danger to their own crews. Perhaps, as Melville suggested, they even believed that a half-mad captain “was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales.”

However, this is hard to credit where the managing owners of the Sharon, Gibbs & Jenney, were concerned–Jenney in particular. The family featured prominently in Fairhaven whaling, the Jenney name cropping up repeatedly in whaling crew lists. While the Gibbs & Jenney-owned Sharon cruised unhappily about the western Pacific in 1842, no less than nineteen family members were at sea in whaleships. They ranged in rank from greenhand upward: six were boatsteerers, five were either first or second mates, and three were captains. Hardheaded as shipowners were reputed to be, it is scarcely likely that Jenney would knowingly appoint a potential murderer to the quarterdeck of one of his vessels.

The two other Jenney-owned ships that departed from Fairhaven in 1841–Hesper and Columbus–had men of good reputation in command. Captain Ichabod Handy of the Hesperus was well thought of by the missionaries, later on playing a crucial part in the establishment of a mission in the Caroline Islands. He had a very good relationship with the Pacific Islanders he dealt with, going down in history as one of the pioneers of the coconut oil trade. Captain Frederick Fish of the Columbus, as well as being famous for short voyages and good cargoes, was considered “free-hearted” by a whaling wife who gammed [= visited on board] with him, Mary Brewster of the Connecticut whaleship Tiger–a woman who was not known for her charitable opinions of her husband’s fellow skippers.

If the firm had known what Norris was doing, they would have wanted him stopped. However, the only man on board with the authority to restrain the captain was the first officer–Thomas Harlock Smith. In fact, it was his obligation. The brutality was bad enough, but the murder was the last straw. According to Section Three of the Seamen’s Act, it was Thomas Harlock Smith’s duty to arrest Captain Norris, confine him to his quarters, sail to the nearest port with a U.S. consul–Guam–and hand him over for commitment for trial. But he did nothing, and neither did his cousin, Nathan Smith.

SOURCE: In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon, by Joan Druett (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004), pp. 130-132

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Filed under literature, Pacific

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